BWW Blog: Robert Marks - Vocal Coaching Young Performers
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by Guest Blogger: Robert Marks
When I first opened my New York City studio in 1977, I had just been hired as one of the pianists for the new Broadway musical, Annie. Many of my fellow voice teachers were quite upset that kids were being asked to belt in that show, feeling that only classical "head voice" singing was healthy. Also, at that time, most voice teachers and coaches would refuse to work with any student who had not reached puberty. They were under the impression that voice lessons could "ruin" a child's voice, which for many years was a widely accepted belief.
My feeling was that if kids were going to sing at auditions and performances, why not have them do it in a way that was as healthy as possible? How could learning proper breathing, minimizing throat tension, and putting songs in appropriate keys be bad? And was all belting to be discouraged? I came to the conclusion that belting, as a vocal style, was not destructive, unless it was done too long, too loud, or too high. I felt that using chest voice in a healthy way, like a young Shirley Temple or Judy Garland, could be taught and practiced. However, this went against what many of the older, opera-trained teachers were taught.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and there are many highly qualified teachers and coaches helping their students develop healthy, contemporary singing techniques in all vocal registers. And because of current microphone technology, Broadway kids no longer have to sing at the top of their lungs to be heard throughout the theatre. Working with young performers brings me a great deal of satisfaction. They're eager to learn, and usually don't have much of the emotional baggage that can develop after years of dealing with the ups and downs of the entertainment industry.
I'm often asked about selecting appropriate repertoire for the young vocalist. Several factors have to be considered, the two main ones being age and voice appropriateness of the material. I equate choosing songs to choosing clothes: they must be appropriate, complement the individual, and might need some alteration. Certain repertoire is just wrong: a middle-school student toting "Ladies Who Lunch" in her songbook probably needs to rethink things. Moreover, song selection should be varied. Not every song can be an eleven o'clock number, full of dramatic heft and long sustained notes. It's valuable when a singer has many different kinds of songs under her belt to exhibit different strengths, performance styles and techniques.
I treat all of my clients with the same honesty and respect regardless of their chronological ages. Over the years, I've had students from 8 to 80 years old, and welcome the diversity. But vocal health is always the main emphasis. As the physician's Hippocratic Oath states, "First, do no harm."